The diesel fumes from the huge bus reminded me there were 72 hours of boring trip stretching into my immediate future. Knowing I would be captive for three days with little to do on this journey from Arizona to the other side of the country, I decided to make a valiant attempt, once again, to read War and Peace.
Little did I imagine an incredible character would cross my path those thirty-odd years ago. I never got past page five of the book but her story more than made up for anything Tolstoy had to offer. She taught me how a first-person report of a pivotal historical event that happened before we were born can change our whole perspective.
My favorite seat on any bus is right-front. Somewhere in the middle of Texas in the middle of the night I woke up to hear the loud voice of a short matronly woman with fluffy white hair. She had a foreign accent I supposed was German and she seemed to have a most jolly attitude. She took the seat across the aisle, right behind the driver.
As miles piled on miles through the wee hours, she knitted and chatted contentedly with the few around her who were awake. I yearned for sleep and wished she would wind down at some point. We had a breakfast stop and then returned to the cross-country coach. A mother and child needed to sit together, so Miss Motor Mouth asked if she could join me. What could I say?
Her engaging inquisitiveness leaped out to embrace me as soon as she got settled and picked up her knitting needles. I told her I was studying political science and had just finished a European Governments course. For a while she was quiet until, all of a sudden, she seemed to slip the bonds of some memory prison and grabbed my arm as if she had been sent to deliver a life or death message. I was startled with the intensity of her unexpected confrontation.
“Don’t think it cannot happen right here in this country. You are young and have no idea how things can change overnight…and then you will lose everything!”
Needless to say I was taken aback. I had no clue what she was talking about. There were tears in her eyes and all jocularity was gone. Her voice became almost a whisper.
“Listen to me. I know what I know. I was like you—going along in life, looking forward to a bright future, free as a bird. The possibility of this obscene horror never occurred to anyone in my country. They killed my family.”
In view of her accent, I was beginning to get a clue what story she was trying to tell.
“He came to power and everyone believed him. He hypnotized people…I really think he did just that. I still don’t know how it happened so fast, and then they sent me to that…that evil, stinking place.”
I could see the reality of her past was like a barely healed scar--a scab whose scratched surface always leads to new bleeding--but curiosity got the best of me. I tried to be very gentle.
“Where did they send you?”
“The only thing I can think of you might understand is to imagine how far away and cold Siberia would be to you. That’s what it was like.”
I figured out that was her euphemism for concentration camp.
As daylight faded into dusk a light rain fell. She continued to speak of World War II and her homeland and many other things about Europe in those bygone days. Sometime in the night we pulled into a small terminal. She bustled around gathering her things to disembark. I did not want her to leave. Once more, she took my hand.
“Don’t ever, ever forget, my dear. Any society who is positive it can never lose its freedoms is blind.” Then in a pleading voice she added, “I PRAY your generation won’t let it happen again…PLEASE!”
As we pulled away from the station, she stood by her well-worn suitcase and waved as if we were old friends. The bus driver turned to me and said good naturedly, “Well…wasn’t she something?”
“Yes,” I agreed, still puzzled about what had taken place, “she certainly was something.”
I am so sorry I did not get her address. I don’t even know her name, this woman who survived making her own peace with war, but God does.
*True Story. For some reason I will never understand, this sweet, mysterious woman shared her personal tragedy with me as we rode through the night in the right-front seat of a Greyhound Bus in 1976
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